Dietrich Bonhoeffer: from “Letters and Papers from Prison”, Thursday June 29th, 2017- the first of our Debates on “Religion in the Modern World”.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 into a professional, upper-middle-class family. His father, Karl, was a Professor of Psychiatry, and from 1912 Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at Berlin University. Though members of the German Lutheran Church, the family were not regular church-goers. Dietrich’s mother, Paula, was the daughter of a pastor (briefly a chaplain in the court of Emperor Wilhelm II) and the grand-daughter of a countess. She preferred not to send her children to “Sunday school”, but to give them their religious education at home. When the 14-year old Dietrich began to show an interest in theology, his older brothers laughed at him. Why would he waste his life on such a “poor, feeble, boring, petty, bourgeois institution as the Church” they asked. “If what you say is true” he replied, “I shall reform it”.
His generation born between 1900 and 1910, and too young to fight for Germany in WW1, were among the most enthusiastic supporters of Adolf Hitler in the Nazis’ campaign to restore their national fortunes and ‘make Germany great again.’ But Bonhoeffer went in the opposite direction- his doctoral thesis “Sanctorum Communio” (The Communion of Saints) explored the nature of the Church as a fellowship belonging to Christ, in contrast to the common assumption that the Church was the “religious” aspect of the State. Ordained as a Lutheran pastor in 1931, he was working as a theology lecturer in Berlin when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933. In a radio broadcast he warned that Hitler’s idea of the Führer (Leader) could all too easily turn him into a Verführer (Seducer). But the final break came when the Nazis issued their “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service”, with its Aryan Paragraph, stating that no-one with Jewish parents or grand-parents could hold office in any institution related to the State (which included the Church).
Bonhoeffer became one of the leaders of the “Confessing Church”, which refused to accept this law, and after a brief time away from Germany as pastor of two Lutheran churches in London, he became the leader of their Seminary for the training of ministers at Finkenwalde. With the outbreak of war in 1939, to avoid being called up to a fighting unit, he joined the Abwehr (German intelligence), where his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, was already working. Many members of the Abwehr were opposed to Hitler, and hoped to encourage an Army mutiny to depose him. They tried to build links with the British government to lay the foundations for a negotiated peace if they were successful. Perhaps understandably, the British government was suspicious and unresponsive to their overtures. The Abwehr also used their position to smuggle Jews to safety under the ruse that they were to be employed as agents in foreign countries. But the Gestapo became increasingly suspicious about them and several, including Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi, were arrested in April 1943. Bonhoeffer was put in Tegel Prison in Berlin and held for interrogation. From prison he wrote letters, including many to Eberhard Bethge, who had been Bonhoeffer’s student at Finkenwalde, and was married to Bonhoeffer’s niece Renate in May 1943. 2
From “Letters and Papers from Prison” published by SCM Press, London, 1971
Theological discussion in Letters to Eberhard Bethge, from Tegel Prison, Berlin
1. 9th March 1944
[The air raid] lasted two hours. “Bombs were dropped in all parts of the city” says the wireless. In my time here I’ve been trying to observe how far people believe in anything ‘supernatural’. Three ideas seem to be widespread, each being partly expressed in some superstitious practice: (1) Time after time one hears “Keep your fingers crossed”, some sort of power being associated with the accompanying thought: people do not want to feel alone in times of danger, but to be sure of some invisible presence. (2) “Touch wood” is the exclamation every evening, when the question is discussed “whether they will come tonight or not”; this seems to be a recollection of the wrath of God on the hubris (pride) of man, a metaphysical, and not merely a moral reason for humility. (3) “If it’s got your number on it, you’ll get it”, and therefore everyone might as well stay where he is. On a Christian interpretation these three points might be regarded as a recollection of intercession and community, of God’s wrath and grace, and of divine guidance. To the last-mentioned we might add another remark that is very often heard here: “Who knows what good may come of it?” (page 231)
2. 30th April 1944
What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience- and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’.
Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the ‘religious a priori’ [basic assumption] of mankind. ‘Christianity’ has always been a form- perhaps the true form- of ‘religion’. But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless- and I think that is more or less already the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction?)- what does that mean for ‘Christianity’? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our ‘Christianity’, and that there remain only a few ‘last survivors of the age of chivalry’, or a few intellectually dishonest people, on whom we can descend as ‘religious’. Are they to be the chosen few? Is it on this dubious group of people that we are to pounce in fervour, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them our goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don’t want to do all that, if our final judgement must be that our western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity- and even this garment has looked very different at different times- then what is a religionless Christianity?
Barth, who is the only one to have started along this line of thought, did not carry it to completion, but arrived at a positivism of revelation, which in the last analysis is essentially a restoration. For the religionless working man (or any other man) nothing decisive is gained here. The questions to be answered would surely be: What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God- without religion, ie without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even ‘speak’ as we used to) in a ‘secular’ way about ‘God’? In what way are we ‘religionless-secular’ Christians, in what way are we the ??-??????, those who are called forth (see note 1 below), not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favoured, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that 4
mean? What is the place of worship and prayer in a religionless situation? Does the secret discipline, or alternatively the difference (which I have suggested to you before) between penultimate and ultimate, take on a new importance here?
The Pauline question of whether circumcision (????????) is a condition of justification seems to me in present-day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation. Freedom from circumcision is also freedom from religion. I often ask myself why a ‘Christian instinct’ often draws me more to religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t mean in the least with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, ‘in brotherhood’. While I’m often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people- because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it’s particularly bad when others start talking in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable)- to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course. Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail- in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene (see note 2 below), either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure- always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries. Of necessity, that can go on only till people can by their own strength push these boundaries somewhat further out, so that God becomes superfluous as a deus ex machina. I’ve come to be doubtful of talking about any human boundaries (is even death, which people now hardly fear, and is sin, which they now hardly understand, still a genuine boundary today?). It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness. As to the boundaries, it seems to me better to be silent and leave the insoluble unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the ‘solution’ of the problem of death. God’s ‘beyond’ is not the beyond of our cognitive faculties. The transcendence of epistemological theory has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village. That is how it is in the Old Testament, and in this sense we still read the New Testament far too little in the light of the Old. How this religionless Christianity looks, what form it takes, is something that I’m thinking about a great deal, and I shall be writing to you again about it soon. It may be that on us in particular, midway between East and West, there will fall a heavy responsibility. (pages 279 to 282)
Note 1: The Greek word ekkl?sia is used in the New Testament to mean the Church. It literally means “those who are called out”.
Note 2: In ancient Greek plays the “deus ex machina” (literally “God from the machine”) was a contrived solution to some seemingly insoluble problem. 5
3. 8th and 9th June 1944
The movement that began about the thirteenth century (I’m not going to get involved in any argument about the exact date) towards the autonomy of man (in which I should include the discovery of the laws by which the world lives and deals with itself in science, social and political matters, art, ethics, and religion) has in our time reached an undoubted completion. Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis of God’. In questions of science, art and ethics this has become an understood thing at which one now hardly dares to tilt. But for the last hundred years or so it has also become true of religious questions; it is becoming evident that everything gets along without ‘God’ – and, in fact, just as well as before. As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, ‘God’ is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.
Roman Catholic and Protestant historians agree that it is in this development that the great defection from God, from Christ, is to be seen; and the more they claim and play off God and Christ against it, the more the development considers itself to be anti-Christian. The world that has become conscious of itself and the laws that govern its own existence has grown self-confident in what seems to us to be an uncanny way. False developments and failures do not make the world doubt the necessity of the course that it is taking, or of its development; they are accepted with fortitude and detachment as part of the bargain, and even an event like the present war is no exception. Christian apologetic has taken the most varied forms of opposition to this self-assurance. Efforts are made to prove to a world thus come of age that it cannot live without the tutelage of ‘God’. Even though there has been surrender on all secular problems, there still remain the so-called ‘ultimate questions’ – death, guilt – to which only ‘God’ can give an answer, and because of which we need God and the church and the pastor. So we live, in some degree, on these so-called ultimate questions of humanity. But what if one day they no longer exist as such, if they too can be answered ‘without God’? Of course, we now have the secularized offshoots of Christian theology, namely existentialist philosophy and the psychotherapists, who demonstrate to secure, contented, and happy mankind that it is really unhappy and desperate and simply unwilling to admit that it is in a predicament about which it knows nothing, and from which only they can rescue it. Wherever there is health, strength, security, simplicity, they scent luscious fruit to gnaw at or to lay their pernicious eggs in. They set themselves to drive people to inward despair, and then the game is in their hands. That is secularized methodism. And who does it touch? A small number of intellectuals, of degenerates, of people who regard themselves as the most important thing in the world, and who therefore like to busy themselves with themselves. The ordinary man, who spends his everyday life at work and with his family, and of course with all kinds of diversions, is not affected. He has neither the time nor the inclination to concern himself with his existential despair, or to regard his perhaps modest share of happiness as a trial, a trouble, or a calamity. 6
The attack by Christian apologists on the adulthood of the world I consider to be in the first place pointless, in the second place ignoble, and in the third place unchristian. Pointless, because it seems to me like an attempt to put a grown-up man back into adolescence, ie to make him dependent on things on which he is, in fact, no longer dependent, and thrusting him into problems that are, in fact, no longer problems to him. Ignoble, because it amounts to an attempt to exploit man’s weakness for purposes that are alien to him and to which he has not freely assented. Unchristian, because it confuses Christ with one particular stage in man’s religiousness, ie with a human law. More about this later.
But first, a little more about the historical position. (this section is in Appendix 1- see below)
Now for your question whether there is any ‘ground’ left for the church, or whether that ground has gone for good; and the other question, whether Jesus didn’t use men’s ‘distress’ as a point of contact with them, and whether therefore the ‘methodism’ that I criticised earlier isn’t right. I’m breaking off here, and will write more tomorrow. (pages 325 to 329) 7
4. 27th June 1944
I’m at present writing an exposition of the first three commandments. I find No. 2 particularly difficult. The usual interpretation of idolatry as ‘wealth, sensuality and pride’ seems to me quite unbiblical. That is a piece of moralizing. Idols are worshipped, and idolatry implies that people still worship something. But we don’t worship anything now, not even idols. In that respect we’re truly nihilists.
Now for some further thoughts about the Old Testament. Unlike other oriental religions, the faith of the Old Testament isn’t a religion of redemption. It’s true that Christianity has always been regarded as a religion of redemption. But isn’t this a cardinal error, which separates Christ from the Old Testament and interprets him on the lines of the myths about redemption? To the objection that a crucial importance is given in the Old Testament to redemption (from Egypt, and later from Babylon – cf Deutero-Isaiah – chapters 40 to 55 of the book of Isaiah) it may be answered that the redemptions referred to here are historical, ie on this side of death, whereas everywhere else the myths of redemption are concerned to overcome the barrier of death. Israel is delivered out of Egypt so that it may live before God as God’s people on earth. The redemption myths try unhistorically to find an eternity after death. Sheol and Hades are no metaphysical constructions, but images which imply that the ‘past’, while it still exists, has only a shadowy existence in the present.
The decisive factor is said to be that in Christianity the hope of resurrection is proclaimed, and that by means of the emergence of a genuine religion of redemption, the main emphasis now being on the far side of the boundary drawn by death. But it seems to me that this is just where the mistake and the danger lie. Redemption now means redemption from cares, distress, fears and longings, from sin and death, in a better world beyond the grave. But is this really the essential character of the proclamation of Christ in the gospels and by Paul? I should say it is not. The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and the mythological hope is that the former sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way which is even more sharply defined than it is in the Old Testament. The Christian, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, has no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but, like Christ himself (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) he must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in his doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with him, and he crucified and risen with Christ. This world must not be permanently written off; in this the Old and New Testaments are at one. Redemption myths arise from human boundary-experiences, but Christ takes hold of a man at the centre of his life.
You see how my thoughts are constantly revolving around the same theme. Now I must substantiate them in detail from the New Testament; that will follow later. (pages 336 and 7) 8
5. 30th June 1944
Now I will try to go on with the theological reflection that I broke off not long since. I had been saying that God is being increasingly pushed out of a world that has come of age, out of the spheres of our knowledge and life, and that since Kant he has been relegated to a realm beyond the world of experience. Theology has on the one hand resisted this development with apologetics, and has taken up arms – in vain – against Darwinism, etc. On the other hand, it has accommodated itself to the development by restricting God to the so-called ultimate questions as a deus ex machina; that means that he becomes an answer to life’s problems, and the solution to its needs and conflicts. So if anyone has no such difficulties, or if he refuses to go into these things, to allow others to pity him, then either he cannot be open to God; or else he must be shown that he is, in fact, deeply involved in such problems, needs and conflicts, without admitting or knowing it. If that can be done – and existentialist philosophy and psychotherapy have worked out some quite ingenious methods in that direction – then this man can now be claimed for God, and methodism can celebrate its triumph. But if he cannot be brought to see and admit that his happiness is really an evil, his health sickness, and his vigour despair, the theologian is at his wits’ end. It’s a case of having to do either with a hardened sinner of a particularly ugly type, or with a man of ‘bourgeois complacency’, and the one is as far from salvation as the other.
You see, this is the attitude that I am contending against. When Jesus blessed sinners, they were real sinners, but Jesus did not make everyone a sinner first. He called them away from their sin, not into their sin. It is true that encounter with Jesus meant the reversal of all human values. So it was in the conversion of Paul, though in his case the encounter with Jesus preceded the realization of sin. It is true that Jesus cared about people on the fringe of human society, such as harlots and tax-collectors, but never about them alone, for he sought to care about man as such. Never did he question a man’s health, vigour, or happiness, regarded in themselves, or regarded as evil fruits; else why should he heal the sick and restore strength to the weak? Jesus claims for himself and the Kingdom of God the whole of human life in all its manifestations. (pages 341 and 2) 9
6. 8th July 1944
Now for a few more thoughts on our theme. Marshalling the biblical evidence needs more lucidity and concentration than I can command at present. Wait a few more days, until it gets cooler! I haven’t forgotten, either, that I owe you something about the non-religious interpretation of biblical concepts. But for today, here are a few preliminary remarks: The displacement of God from the world, and from the public part of human life, led to attempts to keep his place secure at least in the sphere of the ‘personal’, the ‘inner’, and the ‘private’. And as every man still has a private sphere somewhere, that is where he is thought to be most vulnerable. The secrets known to a man’s valet – that is, to put it crudely, the range of his intimate life, from prayer to his sexual life – have become the hunting-ground of modern pastoral workers. In that way they resemble (though with quite different intentions) the dirtiest gutter journalists – do you remember the Wahrheit [Truth] and the Glocke [Bell], which made public the most intimate details about prominent people? In the one case it’s social, financial, or political blackmail and in the other, religious blackmail. Forgive me, I can’t put it more mildly.
From a sociological point of view this is a revolution from below, a revolt of inferiority. Just as the vulgar mind isn’t satisfied till it has seen some highly placed personage ‘in his bath’, or in other embarrassing situations, so it is here. There is a kind of evil satisfaction in knowing that everyone has his failings and weak spots. In my contacts with the ‘outcasts’ of society, its ‘pariahs’, I’ve noticed repeatedly that mistrust is the dominant motive in their judgement of other people. Every action, even the most unselfish, of a person of high repute is suspected from the outset. These ‘outcasts’ are to be found in all grades of society. In a flower-garden they grub around only for the dung on which the flowers grow. The more isolated a man’s life, the more easily he falls victim to this attitude.
There is also a parallel isolation among the clergy, in what one might call the ‘clerical’ sniffing-around-after-people’s-sins in order to catch them out. It’s as if you couldn’t know a fine house till you had found a cobweb in the furthest cellar, or as if you couldn’t appreciate a good play till you had seen how the actors behave offstage. It’s the same kind of thing that you find in the novels of the last fifty years, which do not think they have depicted their characters properly till they have described them in their marriage-bed, or in films where undressing scenes are thought necessary. Anything clothed, veiled, pure, and chaste is presumed to be deceitful, disguised, and impure; people here simply show their own impurity. A basic anti-social attitude of mistrust and suspicion is the revolt of inferiority.
Regarded theologically, the error is twofold. First, it is thought that a man can be addressed as a sinner only after his weaknesses and meannesses have been spied out. Secondly, it is thought that a man’s essential nature consists of his inmost and most intimate background; that is defined as his ‘inner life’, and it is precisely in those secret human places that God is said to have his domain! 10
On the first point it is to be said that man is certainly a sinner, but is far from being mean or common on that account. To put it tritely, were Goethe and Napoleon sinners because they weren’t always faithful husbands? It’s not the sins of weakness, but the sins of strength, which matter here. It’s not in the least necessary to spy out things; the Bible never does so. (Sins of strength: in the genius, hubris [pride]; in the peasant, the breaking of the order of life – is the Decalogue a peasant ethic? -; in the bourgeois, fear of free responsibility. Is this correct?)
On the second point: the Bible does not recognise our distinction between the outward and the inward. Why should it? It is always concerned with the anthr?pos teleios, the whole man, even where, as in the Sermon on the Mount, the Decalogue is pressed home to refer to ‘inward disposition’. That a good ‘disposition’ can take the place of total goodness is quite unbiblical. The discovery of the so-called inner life dates from the Renaissance, probably from Petrarch. The ‘heart’ in the biblical sense is not the inner life, but the whole man in relation to God. But as a man lives just as much from ‘outwards’ to ‘inwards’ as from ‘inwards’ to ‘outwards’, the view that his essential nature can be understood only from his intimate spiritual background is wholly erroneous.
I therefore want to start from the premise that God shouldn’t be smuggled into some last secret place, but that we should frankly recognize that the world, and people, have come of age, that we shouldn’t run man down in his wordliness, but confront him with God at his strongest point, that we should give up all our clerical tricks, and not regard psychotherapy and existentialist philosophy as God’s pioneers. The importunity of all these people is far too unaristocratic for the Word of God to ally itself with them. The Word of God is far removed from this revolt of mistrust, this revolt from below. On the contrary, it reigns. Men go to God when they are sore bestead, Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread, For mercy on them sick, sinning, or dead; All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.
Men go to God when he is sore bestead, Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread, Whelmed under the weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead; Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.
God goes to every man when sore bestead, Feeds body and spirit with his bread; For Christians, pagans alike he hangs dead, And both alike forgiving. (pages 344 to 6) 11
7. 16th July 1944
Now for a few more thoughts on our theme. I’m only gradually working my way to the non-religious interpretation of biblical concepts; the job is too big for me to finish just yet.
On the historical side: (This section is in Appendix 2)
God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished; and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion (Feuerbach!). For the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped, or as far as possible eliminated. A scientist or physician who sets out to edify is a hybrid.
Anxious souls will ask what room there is left for God now; and as they know of no answer to the question, they condemn the whole development that has brought them to such straits. I wrote to you before about the various emergency exits that have been contrived; and we ought to add to them the salto mortale [death-leap] back to the Middle Ages. But the principle of the Middle Ages is heteronomy in the form of clericalism; a return to that can be a counsel of despair, and it would be at the cost of intellectual honesty. It’s a dream that reminds one of the song O wüsst’ ich doch den Weg zurück, den weiten Weg ins Kinderland [“If only I knew the way back, the long way to the land of childhood”]. There is no such way – at any rate not if it means deliberately abandoning our mental integrity; the only way is that of Matt. 18:3, [“Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”] ie through repentance, through ultimate honesty.
And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [as if there were no God]. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34 “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with the world we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 [“This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”] makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age outlined above, which has done away with the false conception of God, opens up a 12
way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness. This will probably be the starting-point for our ‘secular interpretation’. …………. The poem about Christians and pagans contains an idea that you will recognize: “Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving”; that is what distinguishes Christians from pagans. Jesus asked in Gethsemene, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” That is a reversal of what the religious man expects from God. Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.
He must therefore really live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. He must live a ‘secular’ life, and thereby share in God’s sufferings. He may live a secular life (as one who has been freed from false religious obligations and inhibitions). To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man – not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. That is metanoia [Repentance- literally “a change of mind”]: not in the first place thinking about one’s own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event, thus fulfilling Is. 53. Therefore “believe in the gospel”, or, in the words of John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). (By the way, Jeremias has recently asserted that the Aramaic word for ‘lamb’ may also be translated ‘servant’; very appropriate in view of Isa. 53!)
This being caught up in the messianic sufferings of God in Jesus Christ takes a variety of forms in the New Testament. It appears in the call to discipleship, in Jesus’ table-fellowship with sinners, in ‘conversions’ in the narrower sense of the word (eg Zacchaeus), in the act of the woman who was a sinner (Luke 7) – an act that she performed without any confession of sin- in the healing of the sick (Matt. 8:17, see above), in Jesus’ acceptance of children. The shepherds, like the wise men from the East, stand at the crib, not as ‘converted sinners’, but simply because they are drawn to the crib by the star just as they are. The centurion of Capernaum (who makes no confession of sin) is held up as a model of faith (cf. Jairus). Jesus “loved” the rich young man. The eunuch (Acts 8) and Cornelius (Acts 10) are not standing at the edge of an abyss. Nathaniel is “an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile” (John 1:47). Finally, Joseph of Arimathea and the women at the tomb. The only thing that is common to all these is their sharing in the suffering of God in Christ. That is their ‘faith’. There is nothing of religious method here. The ‘religious act’ is always something partial; ‘faith’ is something whole, involving the whole of one’s life. Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life.
But what does this life look like, this participation in the powerlessness of God in the world? I will write about that next time, I hope. Just one more point for today. When we speak of 13
God in a ‘non-religious’ way, we must speak of him in such a way that the godlessness of the world is not in some way concealed, but rather revealed, and thus exposed to an unexpected light. The world that has come of age is more godless, and perhaps for that reason nearer to God, than the world before its coming of age. Forgive me for still putting it all so terribly clumsily and badly, as I really feel I am. But perhaps you will help me again to make things clearer and simpler, even if only by my being able to talk about them with you and to hear you, so to speak, keep asking and answering. (pages 359 to 362) 14
8. 3rd August 1944
Outline for a Book
I should like to write a book of not more than 100 pages, divided into three chapters: 1. A Stocktaking of Christianity 2. The Real Meaning of Christian Faith 3. Conclusions.
Chapter 1 to deal with: (a) The coming of age of mankind (as already indicated). The safeguarding of life against ‘accidents’ and ‘blows of fate’; even if these cannot be eliminated, the danger can be reduced. Insurance (which, although it lives on ‘accidents’, seeks to mitigate their effects) as a western phenomenon. The aim: to be independent of nature. Nature was formerly conquered by spiritual means, with us by technical organization of all kinds. Our immediate environment is not nature, as formerly, but organization. But with this protection from nature’s menace there arises a new one – through organization itself.
But the spiritual force is lacking. The question is: What protects us against the menace of organization? Man is again thrown back on himself. He has managed to deal with everything, only not with himself. He can insure against everything, only not against man. In the last resort it all turns on man.
(b) The religionlessness of man who has come of age. ‘God’ as a working hypothesis, as a stop-gap for our embarrassment, has become superfluous (as already indicated).
(c) The Protestant church: Pietism as a last attempt to maintain evangelical Christianity as a religion; Lutheran orthodoxy, the attempt to rescue the church as an instrument for salvation; the Confessing Church: the theology of revelation; a ??? ??? ??? ??? [Give me the place to stand] over against the world, involving a ‘factual’ interest in Christianity; art and science searching for their origin. Generally in the Confessing Church: standing up for the church’s ‘cause’, but little personal faith in Christ. ‘Jesus’ is disappearing from sight. Sociologically: no effect on the masses – interest confined to the upper and lower middle classes. A heavy incubus of difficult traditional ideas. The decisive factor: a church on the defensive. No taking risks for others.
(d) Public morals – as shown by sexual behaviour.
Chapter 2. (a) God and the secular.
(b) Who is God? Not in the first place an abstract belief in God, in his omnipotence etc. That is not a genuine experience of God, but a partial extension of the world. Encounter with Jesus Christ. The experience that a transformation of all human life is given in the fact that ‘Jesus is there only for others’. His ‘being there for others’, maintained until death, that 15
is the ground of his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Faith is participation in this being of Jesus (incarnation, cross, and resurrection). Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful and best Being imaginable – that is not authentic transcendence – but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others’, through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbour who is within reach in any given situation. God in human form – not, as in oriental religions, in animal form, monstrous, chaotic, remote, and terrifying, nor in the conceptual forms of the absolute, metaphysical, infinite, etc., nor yet in the Greek divine-human form of ‘man in himself’, but ‘the man for others’, and therefore the Crucified, the man who lives out the transcendent.
(c) Interpretation of biblical concepts on this basis (Creation, fall, atonement, repentance, faith, the new life, the last things).
(d) Cultus (Details to follow later, in particular on cultus and ‘religion’).
(e) What do we really believe? I mean, believe in such a way that we stake our lives on it? The problem of the Apostles’ Creed? ‘What must I believe?’ is the wrong question; antiquated controversies, especially those between the different sects; the Lutheran versus Reformed, and to some extent the Roman Catholic versus Protestant, are now unreal. They may at any time be revived with passion, but they no longer carry conviction. There is no proof of this, and we must simply take it that it is so. All that we can prove is that the faith of the Bible and Christianity does not stand or fall by these issues. Karl Barth and the Confessing Church have encouraged us to entrench ourselves persistently behind the ‘faith of the church’, and evade the honest question as to what we ourselves really believe. That is why the air is not quite fresh, even in the Confessing Church. To say that it is the church’s business, not mine, may be a clerical evasion, and outsiders always regard it as such. It is much the same with the dialectical assertion that I do not control my own faith, and that it is therefore not for me to say what my faith is. There may be a place for all these considerations, but they do not absolve us from the duty of being honest with ourselves. We cannot, like the Roman Catholics, simply identify ourselves with the church. (This, incidentally, explains the popular opinion about Roman Catholics’ insincerity). Well, then, what do we really believe? Answer: see (b), (c), and (d).
Chapter 3. Conclusions: The church is the church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling. The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, 16
constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty. It must not under-estimate the importance of human example (which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in Paul’s teaching); it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power. (I hope to take up later this subject of ‘example’ and its place in the New Testament; it is something that we have almost entirely forgotten). Further: the question of revising the creeds (the Apostles’ Creed); revision of Christian apologetics; reform of the training for the ministry and patterns of clerical life.
All this is very crude and condensed, but there are certain things that I’m anxious to say simply and clearly – things that we so often like to shirk. Whether I shall succeed is another matter, especially if I cannot discuss it with you. I hope it may be of some help for the church’s future. (pages 380 to 383)
On 20th July 1944 Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant-Colonel) Claus von Stauffenberg placed a bomb under the table where Hitler was in conference with army officers at his Eastern Front military headquarters. Several were killed, but Hitler survived. If the assassination had been successful it was intended to spark an army revolt against the Nazis. But its failure led to increased pressure from the Gestapo on the Abwehr members, including Bonhoeffer, who were suspected of being involved. On 22nd September the Gestapo discovered secret files which proved their involvement. Bonhoeffer was moved to the Gestapo prison in Berlin, then on 7th February 1945 to Buchenwald Concentration Camp. With several others he was executed at Flossenbürg on 9th April 1945. 17
Appendix 1- from Letter 3 (8th and 9th June):
But first, a little more about the historical position. The question is: Christ and the world that has come of age. The weakness of liberal theology was that it conceded to the world the right to determine Christ’s place in the world; in the conflict between the church and the world it accepted the comparatively easy terms of peace that the world dictated. Its strength was that it did not try to put the clock back, and that it genuinely accepted the battle (Troeltsch), even though this ended with its defeat.
Defeat was followed by surrender, and by an attempt to make a completely fresh start based on the fundamentals of the Bible and the Reformation. Heim sought, along pietist and methodist lines, to convince the individual man that he was faced with the alternative “despair or Jesus”. He “gained hearts”. Althaus (carrying forward the positive and modern line with a strong confessional emphasis) tried to wring from the world a place for Lutheran teaching (ministry) and Lutheran worship, and otherwise left the world to its own devices. Tillich set out to interpret the evolution of the world (against its will) in a religious sense – to give it its shape through religion. That was very brave of him, but the world unseated him and went on by itself; he, too, sought to understand the world better than it understood itself; but it felt that it was completely misunderstood, and rejected the imputation. (Of course, the world must be understood better than it understands itself, but not ‘religiously’ as the religious socialists wanted.)
Barth was the first to realize the mistake that all these attempts (which were all, in fact, still sailing, though unintentionally, in the channel of liberal theology) were making in leaving clear a space for religion in the world or against the world. He brought in against religion the God of Jesus Christ ‘pneuma against sarx’. That remains his greatest service (his Epistle to the Romans, second edition, in spite of the neo-Kantian egg-shells). Through his later dogmatics, he enabled the church to effect this distinction, in principle, all along the line. It was not in ethics, as is often said, that he subsequently failed – his ethical observations, as far as they exist, are just as important as his dogmatic ones -; it was that in the non-religious interpretation of theological concept he gave no concrete guidance, either in dogmatics or in ethics. There lies his limitation, and because of it his theology of revelation has become positivist, a ‘positivism of revelation’, as I put it.
The Confessing Church has now largely forgotten all about the Barthian approach, and has lapsed from positivism into conservative restoration. The important thing about the church is that it carries on the great concepts of Christian theology; but it seems as if doing this is gradually just about exhausting it. It is true that there are in these two concepts the elements of genuine prophecy (among them the two things that you mention: the claim to truth, and mercy) and of genuine worship; and to that extent the Confessing Church gets only attention, hearing, and rejection. But both of them remain undeveloped and remote, because there is no interpretation of them. Those who, like eg Schütz or the Oxford Group or the Berneucheners, miss the ‘movement’ and the ‘life’, are dangerous reactionaries; they are reactionary because they go right back behind the approach of the theology of revelation and seek for ‘religious’ revival. They simply haven’t understood the problem at all yet, and their talk is entirely beside the point. There is no future for them (though the Oxford Group would have the best chance if they were not so completely without biblical substance). 18
Bultmann seems to have somehow felt Barth’s limitations, but he misconstrues them in the sense of liberal theology, and so goes off into the typical liberal process of reduction – the “mythological” elements of Christianity are dropped, and Christianity is reduced to its “essence”. – My view is that the full content, including the “mythological” concepts, must be kept – the New Testament is not a mythological clothing of a universal truth; this mythology (resurrection etc.) is the thing itself – but the concepts must be interpreted in such a way as not to make religion a pre-condition of faith (cf. Paul and circumcision). Only in that way, I think, will liberal theology be overcome (and even Barth is still influenced by it, though negatively) and at the same time its question be genuinely taken up and answered (as is not the case in the Confessing Church’s positivism of revelation!). Thus the world’s coming of age is no longer an occasion for polemics and apologetics, but is now really better understood than it understands itself, namely on the basis of the gospel and in the light of Christ.
Appendix 2, from Letter 7 (16th July):
On the historical side: There is one great development that leads to the world’s autonomy. In theology one sees it first in Lord Herbert of Cherbury, who maintains that reason is sufficient for religious knowledge. In ethics it appears in Montaigne and Bodin with their substitution of rules of life for the commandments. In politics Machiavelli detaches politics from morality in general and found the doctrine of “reasons of state”. Later, and very differently from Machiavelli, but tending like him towards the autonomy of human society, comes Grotius, setting up his natural law as international law, which is valid etsi deus non daretur, ‘even if there were no God.’ The philosophers provide the finishing touches: on the one hand we have the deism of Descartes, who holds that the world is a mechanism, running by itself with no interference from God; and on the other hand the pantheism of Spinoza, who says that God is nature. In the last resort, Kant is a deist, and Fichte and Hegel are pantheists. Everywhere the thinking is directed towards the autonomy of man and the world.
(It seems that in the natural sciences the process begins with Nicholas of Cusa and Giordana Bruno and the ‘heretical’ doctrine of the infinity of the universe. The classical cosmos was finite, like the created world of the Middle Ages. An infinite universe, however it may be conceived, is self-subsisting, etsi deus non daretur. It is true that modern physics is not as sure as it was about the infinity of the universe, but it has not gone back to the earlier conceptions of its finitude).